autism awareness

By SHARISSE TRACEY SMITH

The day before International Happy Day on March 20th, a teenager with developmental disabilities was arrested after hugging a small child in Westminster, Colorado. The teen was reportedly hanging flyers in his neighborhood when the child he hugged was frightened by the gesture. As the mother of an eight-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old autistic son who favors hugs, I have taught them both about stranger danger, and empathize with all of the parents involved. What I don’t quite understand is the overreaction and rush to judgment by the person who thought a hug required police involvement. In addition to being the parent of a special needs child, I’m a counselor and an educator but most importantly a compassionate member of society: I view this as such a missed opportunity to teach our younger generation about disability awareness, exercising empathy and just plain old fashioned do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

What could possibly be gained by placing handcuffs on someone whose only “crime” was a hug? Neither of the children’s ages were disclosed nor the disability and whether the accused was known to the police. Although the young child was said to be scared by the act, according to the neighbor who then called and reported the kid thought he was being adducted, why not use the encounter to instruct people on the difference between a real threat and misunderstanding? Now, don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t want a stranger to randomly hug my young child either and would be upset if my kid were startled. I would hope to react somewhat differently if that person were a child or if I sensed any developmental disability or was concerned mental illness might be a factor. I’m perhaps more sensitive to people with mental illness and children and adults living with disabilities, given my background. But even a reasonable, thoughtful person who hasn’t had my experiences should still be able to hit pause and delve a little deeper before dialing the authorities.

While it’s not always easy for a mother to be objective about her young children, the same cannot be said about the police. Where was their common sense? What about all the training I’ve been reading about in the news for handling suspects with various disabilities and mental illness? How did this teenager end up at the police station? Why were the parents not called before the police handcuffed him or took him to the station? I would encourage his parents to continue to work on personal space management and asking before one touches. Because my son likes to hug, which might not go over well with everyone, this is something that is reinforced daily in my home. But let’s be mindful that a developmental disability means this minor doesn’t have the same brain/social development.

Booking a kid was extreme and unnecessary. While the child may recall being hugged by a stranger, it is far more likely the teen will be permanently scarred by the experience of being handcuffed, driven in the back of a police car and being without his parents. And all for a hug.

It took a year for my son to learn to hug, to use both arms, to want to hug, to trust enough to hug. It scares me to think that one mistake could get him arrested, and that lack of awareness, compassion and understanding from people could take him back to that place where he would never want to hug again. I love his hugs. They are just as genuine as his heart. Perhaps with Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd, and the fact that autism is much more public and understood than it used to be, people might take a beat before making such a call. But more critically, I hope that our communities would try to learn a little about autism and developmental disabilities as these individuals are ever more visible and striving to deservedly lead as regular lives as possible.

Sharisse Tracey Smith is a mother of four, a writer and an educator. Follow her at @SharisseTracey

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

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